Epiphany I Year C Isaiah 43:1-7
10 January 2016 Luke 3:15-22
Ashland UCC
The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett

In the name of the Holy One, who has called us each by name. Amen.

One of these days I am going to sit down and figure out just how many times in the church year the gospel reading features John the Baptist and Jesus at the River Jordan. It’s not only today on the first Sunday after Epiphany that this story shows up. We heard it only a few weeks ago in Advent, when John was yelling at us to wake up because the Messiah was nearly here. This same story will show up again in just a few weeks at the beginning of Lent. Every time we turn around, it seems we’re back down by the river.
All four Gospels tell the story. I’m sure many of you know that two out of the four gospels that made the final cut into canonical scripture don’t have any stories at all about Jesus’s birth – no shepherds or angels or kings at all. But all four gospels tell the story about his baptism and sometimes more than once, and references to it show up later in the epistles, all of which is Scripture’s way of drawing arrows pointing to Jesus’s baptism: Don’t miss this! It’s important! Pay attention!
In some denominations – my own, for example – this particular Sunday is deliberately set apart for baptisms. And if we don’t have one, we renew our own baptismal covenants and vows. We are so blessed to have a baptism this morning, to celebrate with Marcella as she is called by name into the community of the church. Marcella wanted to be baptized here, with us. And what a privilege it is for us to witness her decision as she claims the Christian path for her own. Marcella, wherever you go, whatever churches you may be a part of as your life unfolds, we will always claim you as part of this family.
This morning’s gospel story was about the day Jesus was baptized. Along with many, many other people, one day Jesus went down to the river to pray. When it was his turn to be baptized, we are told that the Holy Spirit came upon him and a Voice said to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Are those not the words every one of us yearns to hear? That our parent loves us and is proud of us. For those who never got to hear them, the wound is deep and lifelong. This story is especially poignant and powerful and healing, for in our baptisms, we hear them said to us as well.
Marcella, if you don’t remember anything else from this day of your baptism, remember this: You are God’s child, and you are beloved.
Here’s another thin place in the sacred Story, the place where our little stories, the stories of our own lives and of our own baptisms, are woven into the Christian Story. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit works in other faith traditions in other ways, with other rituals to symbolize and effect a sacred shift. For Christians, our sacred shift happens by baptism. In this sacrament we give ourselves, or were given by our parents, back to God. In baptism we enter those same holy waters that Christ did, and as he made himself one with our frail and flawed humanity, so by our baptisms we are reassured of our divine DNA as we are made one with him and his divinity. At our baptisms, the Holy Spirit descended upon us and sealed us as Christ’s own, forever. We too have been claimed and named as God’s beloved sons and daughters, all the time and beyond time, though we often find that hard to believe.
What does it mean to be a Christian? Most simply put, the Christian life is about living into our baptismal identity, witnessing in our own lives and in our own ways to God’s claim upon us: that we belong not to ourselves or to our parents or to our families or to friends or our work or to our causes or even to the world; our core identity is this — we belong to God.
Every morning when I’m in the shower, if I’m conscious as I feel the holy blessed clean water pouring over me, I give thanks not only for the water but also for the waters of my baptism, and I wonder how I am doing in living it out. It’s a simple little spiritual practice that I have found to be very helpful.
In the gorgeous words of the ancient prophet Isaiah that we heard a few moments ago, we are to remember that it is God who created us, who formed us, who redeemed us; it is the Holy One who has called each one of us by name, and we are precious in God’s sight. Therefore whatever happens to us – whatever deep waters we must pass through, whatever trials by fire, however far from home we find ourselves, we are not to despair, we are not to fear, because God is with us, and we are God’s.
In the story of Jesus’ baptism, we learn not only who Jesus is and what his vocation was but we also discover who we are and to look for our own vocations as children of God. In our baptisms, we also have been given the purpose of our lives, which is to become more and more the persons that God created us to be. Whatever surface changes and whatever turbulence we might be experiencing, we are ever being called back to the life we are meant to live — as God’s daughters, as God’s sons.
In the Gospel according to Philip, a gnostic gospel that didn’t make the final cut into the Bible (for a number of very good reasons to my way of thinking), there is a heart-stopping detail that appears nowhere else. According to Philip, when Jesus came up out of the muddy, baptismal waters, he came up laughing. Dripping with joy.
Not how we usually think of it, is it? Remember the scenes of Jesus’s baptism in old-fashioned stained glass windows in church? When I was young, my family always sat in a pew near one of those windows. We get so used to the deadly earnestness and heavy seriousness of the scene, we picture Jesus at his baptism caught like a fly in amber, motionless in stained glass, even the crowd eternally paralyzed, even the dove descending, frozen in motion mid-way between heaven and earth.
Instead, imagine the scene as fluid and full of motion, Jesus laughing, water droplets flinging every which way into the air, catching the light like crystals. Ah! Like Sarah, perhaps, laughing when she heard the unbelievable good news that at her advanced age she was to be the bearer of new life and to play such a part in God’s plan. But it feels just right, doesn’t it, to have Jesus come up out of the water, laughing. We intuitively know that joy and laughter is the exactly right response to the grace of baptism.
The moment happened because — and only because — Jesus went into the waters along with the rest of us. The moment happened because — and only because — Jesus willingly surrendered, self-emptied, and chose to immerse himself in utter identification with all of us, we who struggle and yearn and are heavily-laden with burdens often of our own making. Jesus in his baptism sacramentally took on our nature, all of it, just as we are, and said “I’m with you in this, all the way; I only make sense when I am in communion with you; I’m one of you, and you of me, and you and I know that we are beloved children of God.”
In a moment, I am going to do another one of those esoteric Episcopal things, this one called “asperging.” I have branches of rosemary, and a bowl of water, and I’m going to sprinkle you while saying “Remember your baptisms, and be thankful.” I’m telling you now because I don’t want to startle you!
But before I do, I want share yet another blessing by Jan Richardson. (You can tell she has really captured me this season.) This blessings is her meditation on the words from this morning’s gospel. She titles it: ‘Beloved is Where We begin.”
If you would enter
in the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.

Do not leave
without hearing
who you are:
Beloved,
named by the One
who has traveled this path
before you.

Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for

I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from danger,
from fear,
from hunger
or thirst,
from the scorching
of sun
or the fall
of the night

but I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.

I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.

I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
bearing comfort
and strength,
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear

and with their
curious insistence
whisper our name:

Beloved.
Beloved.
Beloved.

[while aspering] Remember your baptisms, beloved ones, and be thankful.
Amen.

Jan Richardson, “Beloved is Where We Begin,” from Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons (2015), pp 96-98.